Aug 152012

It was, as Frank Oppenheimer described it, “a playful place.”

Frank Oppenheimer, the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb, reinvented the science museum more than four decades ago.

Instead of eye-catching objects like the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian or the steam engine at the Franklin Institute, exhibits at the Exploratorium here were more like handmade toys.

Visitors swung pendulums and watched the chaotic swings, played with prisms to split light and learned about the motion of gas molecules through bouncing balls.

It was, as Frank Oppenheimer described it, “a playful place.”

The Exploratorium inspired other museums to adopt a hands-on, learning-by-doing ethos. Dr. Oppenheimer fostered replication by freely giving away information, and the museum later went into the business of building exhibits for other science museums.

Now, 100 years after the birth of Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium is on the verge of a rebirth.

In January it will close its current site on the northern edge of San Francisco. In the spring, it will open a new $220 million facility on Piers 15 and 17 along the Embarcadero, closer to the throngs of tourists at Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Exhibit space will triple, to 330,000 square feet, and the focus will expand: New exhibits will delve into the environment, microbiology and social psychology.

Prototypes have already been tested on the floor of the current Exploratorium. In one social psychology exhibit, some items of modest value, like a calculator were put out at the beginning of the day. Visitors were told they could take an item, provided they replace it with something else.

“The goal of this is to have a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation,” said Hugh McDonald, one of the curators of a new gallery, which will focus on human behavior. “This table is a commons. It’s up to you to maintain it with the quality of interesting stuff.”

If people do not, he said, participants learn that “it turns to trash.”

One day, the value of the exchanged items remained steady throughout the day. Another day, all that was left by day’s end were gum wrappers and scraps of paper.

“I was just really disappointed in humanity,” said Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough, the exhibit builder.

Read more . . .

via New York Times – 

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